Philanthropy leadership in New York – Australian reflections

30 May 2012 Fiona Maxwell

In Australia, we hear reports about US arts philanthropy with a touch of awe and disbelief. We also say some things won’t work here because of cultural differences or our different tax system. What we do know is that we need to raise the game in arts philanthropy in Australia. We have extensive government support with relative stability, but to maximise the creative excellence that our companies are producing, greater income diversity is required.

In March 2012, Chairs and CEOs of 10 of Australia’s Major Performing Arts Companies travelled to New York to be inspired by best practice in philanthropy leadership. They sought to gain insights into US fundraising culture by meeting with their counterparts, development (fundraising) professionals and key board members from 10 leading US performing arts institutions.

Our hosts were impressive. Their turnovers range from $3 to $300million. The majority raise 50% of their income from giving: a combination of trusts and foundations, corporate sponsorship, small government contributions and most substantially – individual cash gifts. In order to generate that level of support, New York organisations have large, generous and well-connected boards. Their extensive development departments employ experienced fundraisers and produce huge gala events where tables start at $10,000. Companies work to foster a sense of ownership among donors, as Zarin Mehta, outgoing CEO of New York Philharmonic pointed out. ‘People realise that if they don’t give, there will be no New York Philharmonic, at least not as they currently know it.’

A Culture of Asking

Matthew Van Besien, formerly CEO of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and incoming CEO of New York Philharmonic set the scene stating that, as well as a culture of giving, the US has a culture of asking. The biggest reason people don’t give is because they haven’t been asked. The Metropolitan Opera has a board member volunteering almost full time asking her friends for support. It is also a given in the US that if you support a friend’s cause, they’ll support yours. Warren Spector, Chair of the Public Theater says, when setting up donor meetings, ‘Tell them I’m coming to ask for money.’ That confidence at the outset means he is halfway there when it comes to the ask.

Bigger, Better Boards

US board chairs put their money where their mouth is. The group witnessed unique initiatives where chairs would match and incentivise the giving of fellow board members – often leading to increased giving the following year. With the appointment of a new Artistic Director – Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre were concerned about donor retention. Hence the formation of the Artistic Director’s Circle – The Circle Chair gave $1million towards matching membership to the group, fostering closeness to the new artistic director.

Boards ranged from 40 to 160 members, with the majority donating cash. They meet about four times a year, though often have active sub-committees, especially around major fundraising events. It was rare to hear of a fundraising committee however: ‘We don’t want a development committee. The board is the development committee. We try to instil that it is the whole board’s responsibility’. There were also initiatives to grow the next generation of board members (and donors), through young leaders programs and ‘Associate Member’ programs for older supporters who were less able to participate but still able to give.

Melanie Forman, at the New York Philharmonic summarised, ‘It’s a privilege to be on a non-profit board’, and that is further reflected in how positively board appointments are regarded professionally. Sponsorship through employers funding a board member’s annual contribution was not uncommon. All of this gives a sense of the cultural importance of giving and being seen to give.

Valuing the Art

In Australia on opening nights, most tickets in the house are given away for free. In New York they charge twice as much and make it a gala event. Donor cultivation and indeed donor benefits are all focused on the ‘money can’t buy’ experiences of connecting supporters with artists, feeling close to the artistic vision of the organisation, and even the inner workings of artistic production. The Met Opera have a tour called ‘Explosives and Pyrotechnics’ to cultivate a particular niche group of donors. The deeper the involvement, the better – its goal is to transition supporters from audiences to shareholders. The group heard strong views against providing free tickets or discounting access to the art. For example, Signature Theatre Company have enabled a new generation of theatre goers through their $25 ticket initiative, but the $50 subsidy on each ticket is clearly marked so audiences know the value of the theatre they are seeing, and the value of the contribution key donors have made.

Resourcing Development Departments

The tour was hosted by immensely experienced development professionals – fundraisers – often managing teams of up to 30 people. Development directors are well paid, sometimes as senior as the CEO, and have a direct line of engagement with the chair and board. Many CEOs were former development directors themselves. The role of development in board performance management was key, from tracking their annual cash donation, driving the ‘Nominating Committee’ (to ensure major donors were seen as board prospects), and developing one-on-one fundraising plans with individual board members.

Translations to Australia

The US approach to the ‘give, get or get off’ was subtler that expected. ‘Rather than give or get off, the emphasis is on how much you care about it: how much you generate new ideas and cultivate them,’ said Arlene Shuler, President and CEO, New York City Centre. Board member passion for the art form and organisation was a universal requirement.

Needless to say, anonymous donations are rare. Of the 12,000 current named donors giving over $2,000 to the New York Philharmonic this year (six fine print pages in the program), only 31 are anonymous. Not everyone is  comfortable with having their name on a water fountain or a driveway as seen at the Lincoln Center, but hopefully Australia’s culture of giving will change so that all board members at the very least are comfortable with being named for their donations, showing their ownership and pride in the organisations they contribute to.

The first steps in inspiring a new wave of philanthropic leadership in Australia are underway. The 10 Australian organisations are now developing a range of their own initiatives, and there are a series of public events nationally sharing what they have learnt.

A new culture starts with chairs leading the way – with their wisdom and their wealth. As seen in the US, it’s also about resourcing the fundraisers, and valuing the art. With those foundations, the ability for everyone to ask for money is in place. We have a culture of giving in Australia, what we need now is a culture of asking.

Fiona Maxwell – New York  Tour Project Manager and Queensland Manager, Artsupport Australia

Philanthropy leadership events

You have the opportunity to hear from participants, who will share their insights from the tour over the next few weeks as part of panel discussions in Adelaide, Sydney, Perth, Melbourne and Hobart. Staff and board members from arts and cultural organisations are invited to attend, places are limited and registration is essential.

Adelaide 12 June 5:00 – 6:15 pm at the Grainger Studio

Sydney  25 June 6:00 – 8:00 pm SAMAG at the Australia Council for the Arts

Perth 9 July at Government House – contact James Boyd, WA Manager for more information

Melbourne 18 July 4:30 – 6:00 pm at the Iwaki Auditorium

Hobart 19 July 5:30 – 7:00 pm at the Baha’i Centre

Image Credit: Alex E Proimos under a Creative Commons license